Computer-to-plate (CTP) technologies have been featured at printing trade shows for many years, and the concept is certainly nothing new. What is new at Print 05 is increased affordability for these digital systems. Most, if not all, of the larger printing establishments have already implemented CTP and are reaping the benefits of improved productivity, reduced costs and even higher quality printed output. The next big opportunity is greater penetration of CTP in the smaller printer market. And that is what is so exciting about CTP at Print 05—there are now CTP solutions for just about any budget!

Our market continues to grow increasingly competitive, and printing shipments are on the decline in inflation-adjusted dollars according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data. We continue to see much consolidation. In fact, we have been consistently losing an average of about 1,000 printing establishments per year for the last several years. That number took an alarming leap in 2004, when, according the PIA’s Ronnie Davis, “Total U. S. printing plants declined from 44,514 to 42,976—a decline of 1,538 plants or about 3.6% percent from 2003.” With recently adjusted Census Bureau data, printing shipments on an inflation adjusted basis are down 4% in the first six months of this year as compared to the same period last year.

And a recent analysis by WhatTheyThink’s economic commentator, Dr. Joe Webb, points out the increasing gap between profit leaders and profit laggards as the “technology have-nots” continue to fall farther behind.

The big guys have long understood that it is critical to streamline and automate production operations to take cost out of the equation in order to survive. And the only effective way to do that is to increase the digital content in the production portfolio. CTP is a critical enabler in this regard. For many smaller printing operations, though, CTP has been financially out of reach. And for many, the large footprint of the platesetter, and its ovens and processors, puts a strain on space that is already bursting at the seams with everything else it takes to run the business.

But all of that has changed with the CTP-related announcements we are seeing at Print 05. New, more affordable hardware is making its way into the market. Add to the fact that processless and chemistry-free platemaking—once described as the Holy Grail of CTP—is now a reality from a variety of suppliers. This not only reduces the capital expenditure and space consumption required to add CTP to a printing operation, but it also dramatically reduces the ongoing costs associated with the acquisition, management and disposition of chemistry while at the same time compressing plate production times. Further, it increases the safety factor for the platemaking operation and is much kinder to our already very stressed environment. This makes the entire platform affordable—literally within reach of printing concerns of any size. If you haven’t made the transition yet, there are fewer excuses than ever before.

Here’s a sampling of the latest entry-level CTP offerings, both with and without chemistry, on the floor at Print 05:

  • Presstek was the first to commercialize chemistry-free and processless plates. At drupa 2004, prior to its acquisition by Presstek, ABDick showed its Vector TX52 platemaker with a built-in water wash unit that delivers ready-to-mount 2-up plates at the rate of up to 20 plates per hour. Co-developed by Presstek and ABDick, this thermal CTP solution took a while to come to market due to the financial difficulties ABDick underwent prior to its acquisition, and was commercially released this summer to a very positive market reception. Small footprint, high quality, chemistry-free, and priced in the $60,000 range, this product exemplifies the concept of chemistry-free CTP for the masses.
  • Presstek continues to rationalize its product portfolio post-acquisition, and in addition to the Vector TX52, the company now has a complete line of chemistry-free and processless plates and platesetters, including its own Dimension Series with Anthem chemistry-free and Applause processless plates. The company also announced at Print 05 that it was making chemistry-free Aurora plates available for Kodak (Creo) Trendsetter and Screen PlateRite systems. Aurora plates support run lengths up to 50,000. According to Presstek, Aurora plates take advantage of maximum platesetter throughput, unlike other chemistry-free offerings in the market which require higher laser power with an accompanying decrease in throughput.
  • Presstek additionally announced that its ABDick channel would be marketing Screen PlateRite 4-up and 8-up systems. Formerly, KPG had marketed these systems, but with Kodak’s acquisition of Creo, it was anticipated that Kodak would drop the Screen line, thus opening up the opportunity for ABDick. These systems range from 8 to 30 plates per hour at 2,400 dpi.
  • Another new offering in the 2-up marketplace comes from Printware. The company announced PlateStream Violet, an affordable 2-up violet metal CTP system. According to the company, the driving force behind the development of this product was the ability to offer a system that met the requirements for the landscape market as well as for forms printers that want to go to half-size webs and need a longer running plate. The system uses Printware’s TrueDrum imaging and is a small, compact system that weighs under 500 pounds. While the system is not chemistry-free and does require a processor, Printware indicates it is priced aggressively, at “well below $60,000.” Typical run lengths unbaked are 200,000 to 250,000 impressions, and baked, run lengths are up to a million.
  • Printware also announced a new poly CTP system, the PlateStream DRUM. This drum polyester CTP system is comprised of a PlateStream DRUM 2-up polyester CTP platesetter and integrated processor, with a wide plate size range of 10” x 15” to 18.07” x 20.66” and uses Printware’s True Drum Imaging Technology. It also includes a PlateStream RIP based on Harlequin 7.0 and SilverStream polyester plates that are capable of running 25,000 impressions or more. The system can image up to 40 plates per hour. This system is priced at under $55,000. Printware converts and packages long rolls of plates for this system, typically two times the size of smaller rolls distributed by others, resulting in less waste and better pricing.
  • Kodak announced Magnus 400, a thermal CTP solution priced in the $100,000 range. While a processor can be acquired for the system in the $12,000 to $15,000 range, it can also run with Kodak’s Thermal Direct processless plates, taking advantage of processless operating efficiencies. Kodak reports that show attendees are showing a lot of interest in the Magnus 400 packaged with Thermal Direct plates and Kodak Prinergy Evo workflow. Magnus replaces Creo’s older Lotem platesetter family. While the Magnus is rated at up to 21 plates per hour, processless plates do result in some speed degradation. It offers 250 lpi to 450 lpi output, depending on the model, with STACCATO screening and is modular, with the ability to add productivity enhancements such as automatic plate loading and unloading. A fully loaded system has the ability to produce up to 28 plates per hour.
  • Agfa claims great success with its chemistry-free :Azura plate, announcing at the show that these plates are in use in more than 300 printing and prepress sites around the world less than a year after it became commercially available in November 2004. : Azura is a grained and anodized aluminum thermal plate that uses Agfa’s ThermoFuse technology to physically bond images to the plate without any chemical processing. A clean-out step follows the non-ablative imaging process to enhance contrast. :Azura is available in 2-up, 4-up and 8-up formats. Originally launched as an Agfa-only solution for Agfa thermal CTP systems, :Azura is now in use on a variety of platesetters from other vendors including Screen's PlateRites, Creo's Trendsetters and Lotems, Luscher's Expose and Heidleberg's Topsetter and Suprasetter.
  • Agfa also launched a new line of thermal platesetters called :Avalon. These new CTP systems all offer increased convenience, reliability and functionality and feature Agfa's new :Avalon HD Imaging Head. Agfa offers the :Avalon in both VLF (Very Large Format—up to 83x63”) and LF (large format—up to 45.7x32.2”) models. Both lines come with a range of automation options. An evolutionary advancement, :Avalon will replace the :Xcalibur line of platesetters. :Avalon can operate with chemstry-free :Azura plates and offers Agfa’s cross-modulation Sublima screening. Throughput ranges from 10 to 40 plates per hour. Automated plate loading is also available as an option. :Avalon can be packaged with :Apogee or :ApogeeX workflow modules for increased shop productivity.
  • Screen was showing the PlateRite series for two-page, four-page and six-page and eight-page format presses, outputting up to 20 plates per hour and featuring an advanced external-drum design and 32-channel laser imaging head. Optional inline punching is available for perfect on-press register and faster makereadies. The PlateRite family in the 2-, 4- and 8-up range can be operated with Presstek’s chemistry-free Aurora, Agfa’s chemistry-free :Azura plates., Kodak ThermalDirect, and Fuji's Pro-T processless plate. List price for a PlateRite 4100 from Screen is $98,000
  • Enovation had the Fuji processless plate on display. Provisionally called the Brillia HD Processless Thermal Plate PRO-T, this processless plate can be combined with the company’s new entry-level CTP solution, the Dart-E, which sells for about $90,000. Fuji claims there is no degradation in throughput using its processless plate.
  • Another option is JetPlate, a company that has been around for about 2.5 years. This system, which uses an inkjet engine to image a metal plate, can be acquired for about $30,000, including the processor. It produces plates at 150 lpi and supports stochastic screening. JetPlate uses conventional analog plates and standard chemistry. The company claims about 80 installs and plans to bring to market a new system based on Epson 4800 and 7800 engines in early 2006 that will feature improved AM, FM and hybrid screening.

There has never been a better time to make that analog-to-digital transition. I have spoken to many shops of all sizes that have made the switch from film-based platemaking to CTP and without fail, they report that they have been able to reduce operating costs, improve productivity and profitability, and deliver a better product to their customers. Frequently, they report increasing the number of jobs (and revenues!) without increasing staff. And if a plate remake is required, it is a simple, quick operation that can even be instigated by the press operator. One company, who had migrated to Presstek’s Aurora plates with a Screen PlateRite platesetter summed it up by saying, “ My press is a year older, has a few million more impressions, and it runs better than it ever did before .” Those who have made the switch often wonder why they didn’t make the move sooner.

With chemistry-free now going mainstream, and other entry-level chemistry-based solutions also accessible, the incentive to switch and the available choices are greater than ever before. No matter what size your shop is, you should be able to find a solution that meets your needs, both financially and from a production perspective. You can start with a polyester solution, upgrade from polyester to metal, or jump right into metal. Make 2005 your digital year. Take the leap—you won’t regret it.